Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Christianity Challenge to Hinduism

Wherever Christians went to "heathen" lands, they tried to force their faith on their hosts. They were used to converting the locals and had gathered the "experience" of evangelization. But the tide of Christianity petered out in India.

The 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in South America was observed by the indigenous people as a day of their own defeat and shame. Millions of people died in the process of evangelization. The figures that are given are in excess of 60 million.

Fr George M Soares discussed this issue in his article “Religion and Communalism: The Christian Dilemma”.

"In their ‘spiritual and temporal’ conquest of the East and West (the Christians) unleashed a reign of violence and destruction unparalleled in human history. Religion fueled their violence. It fed their racial arrogance, legitimized their insatiable greed, and added to their depredations a ruthless ferocity which only religious fanaticism can give..... It was the deeply religious Spaniards and Portuguese, armed with their Papal Bulls and stirred up by their fanatical friars, who perpetrated the massive genocides which ‘utterly destroyed’ the great cultures of pre-Colombian America and decimated its people. "

"Indians put to death or condemned to the galleys by the Inquisition at Goa, because they remained loyal to the faith of their fathers. Yet their death has surely lessons for the theologian reflecting on Christians exclusivism in communal India today."

Though such tactics succeeded elsewhere, they failed against Hinduism. In case of S. America and Africa, christians had gained swift military victories and the locals were shocked and awed into submission. In India, they could not repeat it. French, Portuguese, Dutch, Spaniards and the British were vying for Indian empire. When not fighting the Indian rulers, they were fighting each other. Since missionaries were seen to be associated with firangis, they did not have much success by persuasive means. Force was used only by the Portuguese in Goa, and results in that tiny enclave were EXACTLY like those in S. America in quality , but not  not in terms of numbers. Local population was exterminated and persecuted. They preferred to die than convert. Most escaped to the neighboring Hindu and Muslim kingdoms.

The lesson that sank into the christians was :  It would not be possible to marshal large enough power to force conversions.  British learned this lesson, and they did not collude with those missionaries, except giving some privileges.

Jomo Kenyatta, “When the European colonizers came to Africa, we had the land and they had the Bible. They asked us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened our eyes we found that they had the land and we had the Bible.”

No, this did not happen India so rapidly. British finally established the empire, but were never able to dispossess the Indians like the Africans. They were reduced to abject poverty, but their spirit could not be broken.


Military conquest of S. America was followed by systematic eraser of the past legacies of the people. It was found necessary to obliterate the past.  This objective of expunging ‘all the traces and remnants of the past’ has been followed by Francis Xavier. In a letter dated January 27, 1545, he wrote:

“When I have finished baptizing the people, I order them to destroy the huts in which they keep their idols; and I have them break the statues of their idols into tiny pieces, since they are now Christians. I could never come to an end describing to you the great consolation which fills my soul when I see idols being destroyed by the hands of those who had been idolaters.” (The Letters and Instructions of Francis Xavier, translated and introduced by M. Joseph Constelloe).

It succeeded not all. Similar tactic by the muslims too was thwarted. When temples were destroyed, Hindus made small shrines, sometimes only one or two feet in size, in well hidden places. Destruction of temples did not lead to destruction of Hinduism.

Abbe Dubois, a French Roman Catholic missionary operating in India in the early 1800s, wrote:

“On their arrival in (India, the missionaries) continue to look at (Indians) with European eyes, and European prejudices, and to act accordingly; but finding themselves disappointed in all their attempts to make an impression upon them on the score of religion or otherwise, they, in their fiery zeal, or rather in their despair, avenge themselves by lavishing every kind of abuse and insult not only on their religion, but also on their institutions, both public and private, sacred and profane.” (Letters on the State of Christianity in India, Asian Educational Services, Delhi, 1995, pp 148-9.)

This is the last resort of the evangelists. During the last 200 years it did not bear significant fruits, and now this tactic too cannot be used. Indian laws make it a crime to abuse or insult any religion in public. If someone is too arrogant or shortsighted, the consequences can be tragic too. Native preachers are well aware of such laws, but sometimes the foreigners are not well briefed.

Christian challenge has been met by the Hindus. Tide of evangelization has been dissipated by the Hinds. It reminds me of what Arnold Toynbee said:

“Today we are still living in this transitional chapter of world’s history but it is already becoming clear that the chapter which had a western beginning, will have an Indian ending, if it is not to end in self destruction of the human race. "

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